Ernesto Carratalá is one of a diminishing number of people who remember what life was like during the Spanish Civil War. The war, a military revolt against Spain’s democratically elected civilian government, began in July 1936 and ended on April 1st, 1939, with victory for Franco’s Falangists, the military-backed fascist party. At 97 years old, Ernesto shares his story after reading British historian Paul Preston’s book: The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and extermination in twentieth-century Spain.
Ernesto Carratalá is known by kids around the neighbourhood as Papa Noel: Santa Claus. His impressive snow-white beard has been a feature around Barcelona’s Gothic quarter for over 20 years. But few would guess at the story this striking old man has to tell.
We sit in Ernesto’s study and he starts reciting a line from The Importance of Being Earnest. We continue talking for a while, following his disjointed trajectory of words, wisdom, and wisecracks: “You will be hard pushed to find an old bugger like me. I tell you, hard pushed all right!” he bellows in Castilian as he rummages through his sprawling library seeking out a tome on Barcelona University. For 20 years he taught in the linguistics department there, and his former students describe him as a “legendary” teacher. Pulling down the right book he points to the section that confirms his reputation: “… in the linguistics department Dr. Ernesto Carratalá left his distinct mark.”
However, he prefers the title piojo, which means louse, and doesn’t just refer to the miserable insects that infested his clothes during his long incarceration. Calling himself a louse underlines his claim to being an insignificant speck in the universe, just another grain of sand that got bloodstained in the long, brutal history of Spain. The nickname also refers to the title of his memoirs: Memorias de un piojo Republicano, (Memories of a Republican nobody). But there sure are some extraordinary nobodies in Spain; in a country where everyone knows there was a ‘Spanish holocaust’ but nobody talks about it.
“One of the achievements of Franco was to instil terror, a real living fear in the Spaniards. We were spooked, completely terrorised. There is no way we would talk about the war,” Ernesto says.
Franco left a lasting impression on the country, ruling with an iron fist until his death in 1975—the war is still a taboo topic in Spain. Ernesto, however, is not afraid to voice his opinion. Having recently finished Paul Preston’s book, The Spanish Holocaust, he says the details are horrific, but a necessary read for those who want to know what really went on. Preston’s book brings to light the hidden horrors of the Civil War: 200,000 men and women murdered without trial behind the lines, as many as those who fell at the battlefronts. Ernesto knows first-hand there were murders on the government’s Republican side and the Nationalist side; murder painstakingly detailed in Preston’s work. But he says the difference was the lack of restraint with which the Nationalists killed.
“They were assassins, absolute ruthless murderers. They were out to exterminate anyone associated with socialism, communism and Freemasonry,” Ernesto remarks. “The main difference between the Nationalists and Republicans was that the Republican philosophy prohibited persecution and murder, while the Nationalists did the opposite: they commended it, they advocated it, they applauded it."
Ernesto believes that without an understanding of the resistance to fascism in Spain, you cannot understand modern Europe. “The Republican government wanted to create a more humane system, while the fascists, all they wanted was power and control. And with God on their side, they got it.”
The military uprising in Morocco on 17 July 1936, led by Francisco Franco, threw Spain headfirst into catastrophe. At the age of 17, Ernesto had to live through the autopsy of his slain father, a military officer who defended the Republican government. After that he travelled to the frontlines to serve in the communist youth brigade.
“I was travelling in a truck with other volunteers. An oncoming truck stopped us dead in our tracks, and I got out and committed the blunder of asking: ‘Who is in charge here?’ The reply came: ‘We don’t have a leader.’ That is anarchism.”
The only places where the Republican (a mixture of anarchist, socialist and communist) reprisals matched those of the Nationalists was in Barcelona and Madrid. This ‘red terror’ involved the murder of upper-class stalwarts, conservatives and church figures. The fascist backlash during and following the Civil War is dubbed the ‘white terror’.
After only a few hours on the frontline, Ernesto was wounded in an ambush and fell into fascist hands. He was thrown in prison and condemned to death by firing squad. The first 35 of his company were shot, but for some reason they decided to leave the final five. A few days later they returned to finish the job, but miraculously an officer who had known Ernesto’s father refused to sign off on his second execution. His final close shave came in 1938 during a large-scale prison break from the San Cristobal penitentiary. Following the break-out, Ernesto persuaded several other prisoners to turn back, insisting they would never make it to France. Hundreds of the escapees were eventually rounded up and executed. Only three made it to the border. When Ernesto was finally released from Barcelona’s Modelo prison in 1943, he decided to revive some of his previous passions.
Just weeks before the start of the war, Ernesto had met Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and had been accepted to study at his theatre company in Madrid. The murder of García Lorca by fascist forces in Granada at the beginning of the Civil War is still a tender point for Spaniards. Renowned Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno describes the fascist assassins as “degenerate Andalusians with the passions of syphilitic perverts and frustrated eunuchs.” Ernesto laments, “Poor Federico, it was a political crime of the illiterate against a man of letters."
Now a free man, Ernesto tried to get his acting career off the ground. His theatre group staged the first public performance of García Lorca’s last drama La Casa de Bernarda Alba. The show was given under authorisation by the timid Cultural Bureau, and the entire performance had to be delivered sitting down. Nevertheless, it was an underground hit in 1949 in a Barcelona devoid of meaningful theatre. But genuine art during Franco’s era was a dead end, so Ernesto poured his energy into another love: language. One highlight from his exemplary language studies was at the State University of New York in 1976, where he spoke about his close shaves with death and that of García Lorca’s real one. He recited several of Lorca’s poems, including the line:
Between people there are spider webs, which over time become wires and, even more, steel bars. When we are separated by death a bloody wound remains in the place of each thread.
Ernesto continued, in his own words, “A bloody wound for every Spaniard. A bloody wound all over Spain, that was the Civil War.”
In the twilight of his life, a superb twist of fate gave Ernesto the chance to put his acting skills to work. While he was living in the village of Allariz, in northern Spain, the production crew of La Lengua de las Mariposas (The Butterfly’s Tongue)—a popular film depicting pre-Civil War Spain—rolled into town. Whilst chatting with a production assistant Ernesto got a shock when the producer José Luis Cuerda arrived and asked him if he was the double for Fernando Fernández Gómez, the film’s main protagonist. Mischievous by nature, he replied that he was and showed the director his obsolete, fascist work permit— obligatory to carry in his day— noting him as a registered actor.
“They said they would think about it. And the next day there was a knock on my door and I was offered a small part—a cameo role,” he laughs. Ernesto played the role of a music teacher and gave such a stirring performance the director exclaimed: “Professor, you sir chose the wrong career!”
CIVIL WAR TOURS
British resident, Nick Lloyd, runs a highly-acclaimed Spanish Civil War tour, which visits places in the city that were key to events between 1936 and 1939. The tour gives an overview of the Civil War and covers themes such as anarchism, George Orwell, and the realities of daily life and bombing.
The tour lasts three hours and costs €20.
Contact Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org